Duterte: PH will continue to defend rights in disputed waters

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 23) — Despite improved relations with China, President Rodrigo Duterte said the country will not stop to defend its claim over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.

The President said this in his third State of the Nation Address Monday at the Batasang Pambansa.

The Philippines' commitment to protect its interests in disputed waters is behind the country's effort to engage China through "bilateral and multilateral platforms such as the ASEAN-China and the Philippines-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism," the President added.

Duterte said it was this open line of communication, as well as amicable management, which led to positive developments between both countries.

The development included Filipino fishermen being allowed back to disputed waters.

"Participation in the ASEAN-China dialogue has also resulted to the draft framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea which intends to resolve disputes by peaceful means," Duterte said.

The President said the country "shall continue to assert and pursue an independent foreign policy. Our long-term national development and national security goals come first," and that good relations would not stop as long as foreign nations "wish us well."

RELATED: Survey: 73% of Filipinos want Duterte to assert rights in West PH Sea

Chinese Amabssador Zhao Jianhua said the President's comments were "fairly objective" and "good."

"What he said reflects the facts. Despite the differences we have over the South China Sea, we have made tentative progress in the areas of cooperation particularly in terms of trade, tourism, infrastucture. And I think the Filipino people have already benefitted from the cooperation that have been carried out by China and the Philippines," Zhao said after the SONA.

Zhao said he believes Filipinos cherished the "traditional friendship" with the Chinese.

The topic of the West Philippine Sea remains controversial among Filipinos.

Despite the President's popularity, two surveys showed majority of Filipinos want the government to be more aggressive in asserting its claim in the West Philippine Sea.

On July 13, Pulse Asia released a survey saying 73 percent of Filipinos agreed to the statement that the government must assert the 2016 ruling of a tribunal at The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China's sweeping claims over the disputed waters, including the West Philippine Sea.

A day later, a Social Weather Stations survey said around 80 percent of Filipinos are not satisfied with how the administration handles the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who told CNN Philippines in February that China's continued militarization in disputed islands in the South China Sea was a national threat, said he was hoping for President Duterte to elaborate on how the government would assert sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

CNN Philippines Pia Garcia, Luchi de Guzman, and Regine Cabato contributed to this report.